Ten years after East Side matriarch Blanca Alvarado “retired” from politics, the trailblazer shows no signs of slowing down.
Alvarado is pushing a controversial plan to close the Reid-Hillview Airport and build affordable housing. She’s also working on a campaign to oust Alum Rock Union Elementary School District board trustees Esau Herrera and Khanh Tran for misconduct.
Blanca, 87, who still lives in a modest home in East San José, has led hundreds of social justice and human rights campaigns – from organizing a Latino club in high school to the days of Cesar Chavez and now the resistance against Donald Trump – all while opening the door for the next generation of Latina leaders.
But the fight isn’t over. With the election of Trump, who has targeted immigrants in his first term as president, Alvarado said racism is rampant again and the Latino community is getting the “whipping of our lives.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve been in politics a long time,” Alvarado said. “I’ve never seen anything as vicious and heartless as what we’re seeing now.”
Alvarado said she’s hoping for a revolt at the polls this November and that “people understand the consequences of not voting.”
In addition to racial inequities, Latinos are plagued by homelessness and the lack of affordable housing – which Alvarado said is the biggest problem facing San José. And it’s getting worse.
That’s one of the reasons Alvarado has organized a coalition to close Reid-Hillview and use the land for affordable apartments.
“They need to close the damn thing,” said Alvarado, sitting inside her living room, covered with family photos, crosses and colorful Mexican mementos. “We need housing there really badly. We knew that there was a problem 20 years ago when people were sleeping in their cars. Every day you hear of people leaving. And why aren’t they doing something?”
Alvarado’s other campaign, Rise Up Alum Rock!, urges voters to come together to “end corruption, mismanagement and disrespect” on the school board by replacing the two trustees.
“Our community has the right and the power to choose school board trustees who act with our kids’ best interests at heart and behave with decency and integrity,” the campaign website says.
Alvarado made history as the first Latina elected to the San José City Council and Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors — but her career in politics almost didn’t happen.
That is, until a man showed up unannounced at her Alum Rock tax firm three decades ago.
Victor Ajlouny, a political operative who helped elect ex-Mayor Chuck Reed, pushed Alvarado into politics – whether he knows it or not. Alvarado had fought for district elections in the 1970s to allow East San José to elect a Latino representative. Ajlouny walked into her office and said he wanted to run.
“I was shocked. I knew enough by then to realize that he was just coming to the lowest-turnout district in the city to run here,” Alvarado said. “That night I said, ‘This is ridiculous. We fought for representation all these years.’ It was right then and there that I decided I should run.”
And the whirlwind began. Alvarado’s 28 years in local politics led to juvenile justice reform, affirmative action policies, confronting police brutality, forming a city housing department, advocating for transit and leading a fight with the city over developing the county fairgrounds.
But the biggest challenge came when Alvarado spearheaded an effort to ban cruising in neighborhoods – sparking outrage from the Latino community who called her a sellout.
“I understood the cultural identification with the low-riders,” Alvarado said. “But all of the businesses along Story Road were fed up. It was a very difficult decision to make to take that on. It took us five years to do it, but we finally found the legal means to do it.”
Alvarado said the no-cruising policy spurred the redevelopment of crumbling apartments on Poco Way, an area riddled with crime and gang activity, and building the Tropicana shopping center.
“She’s just a woman of integrity and unfortunately that sometimes ostracized her from her elected colleagues,” said Andrea Flores Shelton, a division manager for San José’s parks, recreation and neighborhood services department. “But it taught a lot of us a lot about integrity. She really had a vision that not a lot of people could see.”
Shelton, who worked for Alvarado in 1999 when she was a county supervisor, credited Alvarado with launching her career in public service.
“Without that experience and her office, I would absolutely not be where I am today,” Shelton said, adding that Alvarado taught her to speak up about government inaction to address neighborhood problems.
Though she’s been out of politics for a decade, Alvarado said she’s just getting warmed up. Her push to close Reid-Hillview and build housing has been met with resistance from elected officials, but unfortunately for them, Alvarado enjoys a good fight.
“When I die,” she said, “that’s when I’ll stop doing this.”
Contact Ramona Giwargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.